Taking a Breath: The Importance of Distance

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

I remember back in this post saying that I had a bunch of August posts all lined up, but they were in draft stages and with everything else going on, they fell to the wayside. So AmbiGaming has been a little more silent than usual. As I sit at home on recovery from surgery, I find myself with a lot of time on my hands to finally do things that I had to “balance” when I was at work. I’m reading a lot more. I’m writing more fiction. I’m playing more music for myself. It’s been a few weeks since I picked up The Witcher III, which puts me far behind in my Year of the RPG, but the break from my usual schedule has been nice.

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And that got me thinking about the importance of distance.

Minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty below. Skip ahead to “Slamming on the Brakes” if you wish to avoid them.

Little spoilers

Keep on Truckin’

It today’s fast-paced society, it is easy to become swept up in constantly being on the move. And despite what you’ve hear, a recent report by the Harvard Business Review suggests that Milennials work longer hours and take less time off than previous generations. While some of it may have to do with how technology can always keep people connected to their work (I once had a parent of a client get angry at me for not answering an email while I was on vacation), some of the problem may also be that some in this generation must work two jobs in order to make ends meet in today’s economy.

A friend and I were talking about Metal Gear Solid 2, which is a game close to my heart. In a twist, the titular “Solid” Snake is not the main protagonist, at least after the opening mission. A super-soldier fighting against a shadow organization bent on destroying the world with nuclear weapons, Snake takes on armored tanks firing missiles as regularly as I take on making coffee in the morning. But not in MGS2; in this game, he takes a secondary role.

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Indeed, he is presumed dead for much of the story, so far underground has he gone. But when he comes back on the scene, he is ready to go, advising a younger generation and diving into another large, final adventure of his own in one final push for the cause he believes in.

Contrast this with another workaholic character, perhaps Leliana from Dragon Age (no, I cannot go one post without bringing up that series). She’d had a rough life, our Leliana. Her teenage years were spent as a bard, then she was betrayed, went into hiding, was pulled out of hiding to fight a Blight threatening the world, then was pulled into becoming a bardmaster/spymaster for the main religious institution of the DA universe, only to be dragged into another potential world-ending conflict.

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Her entire life, she has been operating in the shadows to make sure grander plans are put into place and run smoothly, without bending or breaking and watching friends be pulled across Thedas and her beloved Chantry fall into shambles.

At the end of Dragon Age: Inquisition – meaning during the Trespasser DLC – Leliana comments that, basically, she is done with being part of the Inquisition, and that while she’ll still help, her time in the spotlight is over. In one version, she even trains her replacement before dying (sort of – it’s complicated). This struck me as interesting, because not only is she such a workaholic, but video game characters never want to stop doing their job in a game. But she just seemed so weary. And truly, weary is the right word. Not tired. Not bored, Not bothered or “over it,” but weary.

Slamming on the Brakes

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience in which we’ve had a problem that we’ve left, only to have a solution effortlessly come to us later. This is the benefit of taking a break. But when to we need breaks, and what exactly does that mean? Is it even important?

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Spoiler alert.

First, let’s talk about what is actually happening when one finds themselves needing a break. This usually means that you have reached a point of having to cease what you are doing, usually do to a drop in productivity or ability to concentrate, or you are generally not working at an optimal level anymore. In the absence of physical labor, which would dictate that you physically stop what you are doing because your muscles are fatigued, in the case of mental work, an area of your brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the culprit for needing to take a breather.

The PFC is the part of your brain responsible for executive functioning like keeping you focused and attending to the task at hand, willpower, and other tasks that require logical thinking and/or high levels of conscious thought to complete. Like everything in our bodies, using our PFC takes energy, and there is a finite amount of energy that we have to spend until we need to take a break.

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Now, of course there is the caloric energy, which our brains need, as well, but just like using our physical muscles, calories aren’t the only things that drive how much physical exertion we can withstand. Sometimes, we’re just done. We have hit the limit of what our PFC can handle.

The trick, of course, is to take a break before reaching something called burnout*, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Recent studies pose that humans can concentrate for about 50 minutes to an hour before benefiting from a 15 minute mental break (read: no Facebook, no playing on the phone, but rather a complete change in scenery and task), although Google searches might suggest anywhere from 8 seconds to 20 minutes being the duration of the average attention span (of course, with the ability to “refocus” on the same task again).

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At any rate, whichever the case, the fact remains that the PFC has a finite amount of time that it can be “on,” focused, and working before it needs a break. That’s nice and everything, but what does taking a break actually do?

Taking a Moment

Aside from the obvious health benefits from getting up and walking around throughout the day, taking a “mental break” can prevent decision fatigue, which, like muscle fatigue, can prevent a person from effectively making decisions in a logical and systematic way. Likewise, taking a break from a mental project allows the brain time to relax and approach the problem with fresh perspectives when it returns.

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Interestingly, if you have ever experienced an answer to a previously-stupefying issue suddenly bubbling to the surface of your mind while doing something else, it’s because of a similar principle to this: your brain is continuing to work through the problem subconsciously while your conscious mind is otherwise occupied, allowing the subconscious to puzzle through without as much pressure put upon it.

These breaks can thus enhance creativity and problem-solving, and can even keep motivation for a long-term project high, like unplugging your goals and plugging them back in again.

Are You a Good Break, or a Bad Break?

Of course, on a day-to-day basis, you don’t want to interrupt something called flow, which we talked about more here, but all in all, it’s important to be aware of what your body and mind are telling you. If it gets to the point when you feel fatigued, have trouble concentrating, or are feeling agitated when trying to complete a task, it’s time to step back and take a break. Whether that break is a 15-minute walk in the middle of the day or a two-week break after the end of a trying semester, it’s important to be aware of what you need and take care of yourself.

Your mind will thank you, and you’ll return to your regularly-scheduled tasks with a fresh brain and feeling rejuvenated toward your projects.

Back to the Games

I find it interesting that Solid Snake does take a bit of a break from his life as a super-soldier, working behind the scenes, and carries on for a long time with seemingly tireless dedication, whereas Leliana, who has been thrown from drama to drama, quite plainly remarks that she is pretty much done with having a hand in the world’s fate.

While Leliana may be my favorite Dragon Age character, I do think in this case she could learn a thing or two from Snake, and maybe take a break, go on a vacation, and allow herself some rest, in order to return to the world’s stage triumphantly, instead of looking at her job with weary eyes.

What about you? Do you know of a video game character who just needs to take a few minutes to relax, or maybe they need a full-on vacation? How do you recognize when you need a break? Do you find you ever need breaks even from fun things you do? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!

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  1. This happened with me and Facebook or rather the constant bombardment of news aka how terrible the world is on Facebook. I logged off and deleted the app…then found a replacement in Twitter where I’m starting to feel a similar way. Your comment about how humans can concentrate for maybe 50 minutes to an hour for some reason reminded me how we’re terrible multitaskers. Like just humanity in general. We don’t really multitask, but rather just switch quickly from task to task. I can also see burnout happening even easier for those with executive function disorder. Finding more out about that has made me realize quite a bit about myself and it’s often an explanation for what’s consistently been perceived as laziness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are terrible multitaskers, and you are right that multitasking isn’t really something we can do – it is just that some people are better and switching and refocusing on a new task than other people are, but it’s still not very efficient.

      Social media is a great example of needing distance. I don’t really use Facebook much anymore, and just chose to follow mostly game things on Twitter, and keep my social separate and my new separate. But yeah, burnout is terrible and I’m sure worse for people with executive functioning disorders.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you’re good at focusing/re-focusing then you seem good at multi-tasking. I used to be a lot better at it until the brain fog crept in hehe. I’ll sit there and say, “What the hell was I doing?” if I’m interrupted. Even if it was something that goes along with some project I’m working on. Switching gears from one thing to another might make me forget what I was working on even if it’s all a part of the same whole.

        I’m going to try to fix my Facebook so I can enjoy it again…as much as possible. There are things I miss.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Leliana totally deserves to go on a nice vacation with a very cool elf named Renya! 🙂 And lots of poor video game characters could use a break now that I think about it, haha. Us gamers put them through a lot!

    That’s actually quite interesting and a good point – mental energy is a thing that needs fuel and recharging too. Pushing ourselves to the brink of mental exhaustion is a very bad thing. In games, I know I need a break when bosses start kicking my butt, or I can’t get passed something I found easy before. Putting the game down for a while and coming back to it usually helps me conquer those difficult challenges.


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